It's virtually impossible today to appreciate the extent to which the railroad in the 19th Century fostered the explosive development of the current Hicksville/Levittown/Wantagh area into a major agricultural region and how the accessibility to land bequeathed by that fact played into the suburbanization of our area in the automobile age.
Suburban building giants like William Levitt, Jerry Spiegel and Anthony Villet didn't simply superimpose circuit board suburbia on open spaces. Suburbia arose from the wheat and potato and cucumber fields and the dairy pastures.
Suburban communities, after all, are not built in the remote wilderness but in locales long rendered accessible by road and rail and agriculture. Thus agriculture was a precondition for suburbia; the home-builders were planting house in which communities might sprout.
Early agriculture in our area included dairy cows, grains, and sheep for wool and mutton and - until Quakerism became more politically influential in the late 1700's - tobacco and slave labor as well.
As it's all too easy to see history in general as a series of crisis',it's all-too-easy to see the chronicle of agriculture in our area in terms of blights, infestations, and crop failures leading to different practices. The approach, nevertheless, is illuminating.
The Hessian fly infestation, which began around 1790 - when combined decades later with the opening-up of Ohio and environs by the railroad - caused wheat to decline as a major cash crop by the middle of the 19th century.
Still, notwithstanding the rise of potato and cucumber farming in the 1870's, corn and wheat remained profitable. In the winter of 1889-90, for example, a mill in Wantagh just south of Beltagh Ave. - one of several grain, grist, and saw mills operating there - processed 1.07 tons of wheat and 2.48 tons of corn.
Indeed, the very last crop harvest in Levittown was not potatoes but wheat taken in by George Wojtyniak in 1949 before his spread became the site of the Island Trees Middle School.
The Hessian fly infestation was especially felt in the area two hundred years ago because it came at a time when overuse of some fields was leading to infertility. Soil exhaustion, acting in concert with the climatic upheavals of the 1816-18 era which caused worldwide crop failures, prompted a number of Quaker families in the Jerusalem/Island Trees area to relocate to Westbury and establish the meeting there on Post Avenue.
The cucumber blight of 1912 was a great setback for the local pickling industry brought to our neck-of-the-woods by droves of German immigrants after 1850.
Although there were no pickle factories in Levittown itself, there were several in nearby communities. Wantagh had one just north of Bayberry Lane and its productivity can be surmised when we observe that on August 24, 1883 alone, some 125,000 pickles were shipped out of this facility. In Hicksville there was a pickle factory on Duffy Avenue near Newbridge Road and the current train station and H. J. Heinz operated one at Bethpage and Woodbury roads until 1922 but, by then, the company was already in Pittsburgh where it's based today.
Want to learn more about the history of Levittown and the surrounding communities? Visit www.levittownhistoricalsociety.org.
Editor's Note: Part 2 of this column will run next Wednesday.